Am I doing enough good?

Posted on January 22, 2017

This year the girls have been interested in knowing what I am doing at work, responding to my questions about what gear they need to bring to school with questions of their own.

“What are you doing today? Meetings or emails?”

“Is this a ‘you already have the job’ or a ‘you are fighting to win the job’ kind of day?”

“Are you going to talk to people you like today or will it be a hard day?”

Sometimes it feels like it slows me down, other times it genuinely helps me prepare for the day. A few weeks ago we were working on a proposal for a faith-centered retirement community. I try to find connections that allow me to feel comfortable speaking in the first-person about an organization. I thought it might be a stretch: I haven’t attended church outside of funerals or weddings in 30 years and I get uncomfortable with people who lead with their faith in bios. As I researched it quickly became personal, some of my most vivid and foundational memories have to do with church and sermons.

A hopeful image, with a view of Vermont mountains with a system of hearts drawn in the sand by hand.

We all have a person in our life who shines more than any other, and I don’t mean spouse or child, I mean before that—a teacher, a sibling, parent, somebody. For me, it was my grandpa. He was wise, wicked, ageless as he never lost his ability to delight. He also manages to continue to counsel me after his death. I am grateful for the mornings I spent at the feet of he and my grandma, as they discussed current events and injustice, at their different homes in the retirement community where they spent their last two decades. It was a retirement community for people who had devoted their professional lives to religious organizations.

This center that I was researching was based on Jewish values, and their founders said, “We must continually question, are we doing enough good?” That hit me squarely in the chest because I think a lot of the time we float along as if there are finite responsibilities and clearly defined milestones that indicate success or completion.

Are we doing enough good?

I thought about it in the context of living and even turning it to a selfish perspective:
Does my kindness extend to self?

When I really thought about it I got excited. The past 12 months have felt like a tightrope of either or, them vs us, good and bad. The things that I need to improve on and the places that I want to grow don’t necessarily match up with other people. That doesn’t make them wrong, my goals or other people. I don’t want to run a half marathon and I don’t plan to quit swearing, but I do want to learn more about policy. I don’t want to feel that I can’t engage in political discourse because I don’t know enough. I didn’t march and as I read about the March I witnessed criticism of every kind—they shouldn’t have marched, they didn’t have to march, why would they march, they only marched, their signs were wrong, they treated it like a party, too angry, too happy.

None of what is ahead is easy or clear, it also will not come with any pats on the back or discernible moments of accomplishment. The triumph or satisfaction needs to be tied into something that is self-directed, holding ourselves accountable, whether we’re trying to quit smoking, understanding our own bias, or something else. As I consider it in the “Are we doing enough good” context, I see that my best hope is to determine what that means to me and to push myself to be able to say yes or “I’m trying.” It will include being good to myself to keep me healthy for the work, it will include both listening and stepping back. I want what I learn to be stronger than my guilt if there are twinges of guilt I want to use them to influence my future actions.  There will be other people who will interpret this very differently than I will. I’m working on how to manage the way I react.

My mom said in a comment on Facebook the other day in reference to this article about continuing the work after the march, “Yes. I am pondering this. What will I focus on, where can my impact be greatest?”

A bird sits along high atop a tree on a cold, wintry day, a beacon of strength.

We won’t always be shoulder to shoulder with people who share our views, we may be alone in a Facebook thread where nothing we say seems to be heard, we may not always feel welcome. As I look back on the last 6 months I see friends; men and women, who moved beyond their comfort zone to speak out against racism, sexism, and classism. As it happened I felt like people were being too quiet, but now I see they were going at their pace and that they did get there, I made the mistake of judging them in that moment for not going at my pace. I hope that if we go back to the question of “Am I doing enough good” we will be able to stay focused on our own growth and, hopefully, making the world better.

Tomorrow

Posted on January 19, 2017

Tomorrow will be different.

 

There is no silver lining, I don’t even think we know how bad it will actually get.

 

But there is a tomorrow. I am going to hang on to the idea that each day, each tomorrow, I get an opportunity to make things different. It will not always be in big ways, or with legions of people. It may be one person in one softly spoken conversation.

 

I won’t stop just because it’s different, but I also won’t sugarcoat how deeply troubled I am.

 

MLK isn’t a Holiday

Posted on January 16, 2017

If anything it is a call-to action.

Pithy quotes and puffed chests, effusive adoration of a man on a single day a year and deafening silence on those days not dedicated to his memory. Harsh? Perhaps, but I’ve been guilty myself, so I lump myself right in there with the rest.

Despite people pinning the shit out of quotes about sticking with love, darkness not driving out darkness, the time always being right to do what’s right, I have seen more All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter proclamations than I have seen public support of black lives.

Martin Luther King Jr., also said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” He was younger than I am when he died, he has been dead longer than I have been alive.

About four years before he died:

“…if you had an alteration with a white person who was trailing you or whatever or giving you the finger; he’s not gonna do anything right then; he’s gonna go home and organize and then come get you.”

Cleveland Sellers, Summer of 1964

The year I was born, Illinois was the first state to adopt MLK as a holiday, ten years later, in 1983, Congress followed suit. Thirty two years later a 30-year-old woman named Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate Flag, something that was long overdue.

“You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!” Bree Newsome

It was back up within the hour.

“I can’t believe I still have to protest this crap!” Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Really, how many years are we still protesting it? How many marches? How many lives? How many lives? That’s the main part. How many more lives that we have to mourn over?”

Jalaludin Abdul-Hamid, Summer of 2015

We can’t trot out quotes once a year and qualify a day of reflection as our contribution for the year and truly think any change will come. We have to act, not to honor a man we never met who we have decided is a worthy subject of reverence, but we have to do it because it is what is right. He didn’t have to be perfect, he wasn’t perfect, but that’s not a prerequisite for action.

Meryl Streep spoke out at the awards, we can discount her for her whiteness, her privilege, her arrogance, and for previous missteps, or we can say that we saw a person take a stand. Did other women and men take a stand at those awards or in the press and on the streets in the days and weeks before? Yes. Were they people of color? Yes. Did it matter less because of who they were? Or did it matter less because of who the rest of us are and what makes us sit up and take note?

I am not perfect and I am bound to say the wrong thing, but isn’t that the point? Are sanitized and crisp speeches going to be the thing that reveals our humanity and brings us closer to true unity? Or will it be trying and failing? Faltering and reorganizing?

 

 

“We need not idolize King to appreciate his worth; neither do we need to honor him by refusing to confront his weaknesses and his limitations. In assessing King’s life, it would be immoral to value the abstract good of human perfection over concrete goods like justice, freedom, and equality — goods that King valued and helped make more accessible in our national life.”

Michael Eric DysonI May Not Get There With You

 

Friends of mine, as well as people I only know of, will be marching in cities all over the country. They aren’t public speakers and they aren’t without weakness, fear, and ignorance, what they are is committed to trying.

“As a result of such images, many of us have developed what I call the perfect standard. Before we will allow ourselves to take action on an issue, we must be convinced … that we have perfect understanding of it, perfect moral consistency in our character, and that we be able to express our views with perfect eloquence.”

Paul LoebSoul of a Citizen, Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time

Our country is in a time of great change, but it is not the only change that can happen. We can’t defer caring for another four years. It isn’t easy, relationships are likely to be tested as people reveal just how much actual foundation those rosy shares about MLK have behind them. If we are willing to consider for one day each year, why Dr. King did what he did, is there any reason not consider just how much of what he dealt with is still a reality for black people today?

Any of us can move toward change that matters, but we do have to start and sustain that motion.

 

 

When I Can Choose, I Do

Posted on January 11, 2017

Sadness isn’t always something I can control. There are periods in my life when I remember being slick with a sadness that I could not shake. Other times, though, it’s been a choice. I’ve luxuriated in sorrow, rolling up good and tight in the all-consuming oblivion of it.

Last night as I sat down to watch President Obama give his farewell speech I was numb. The first few moments as I watched him walk out on stage I shook with fear that he would be assassinated. Dramatic? Sure, but lately the political and social realm has teetered toward the inconceivable. As he began talking I settled in, listening and remembering watching him be sworn in with the girls in our laps.

As it really dawned on me what the speech meant, I felt sadness overwhelm me. The tears were timid at first, but with one body-wracking sob, I was done. I crumpled against Sean and wept. I wept for old hurts, dashed hopes, and then I wept for what this man and his family have given us. The magnitude of sacrifice and the degree to which they all faced criticism, scorn, and ridicule without flinching. He is the only President our girls have known. Michelle Obama is their only First Lady.

There is so much that I could be sad about, but because I am able, in large part because of the words he chose last night, I am not sad. I am filled with gratitude for the Obamas and with purpose for the role that my family will play in continuing to speak up and show up to the political and social process.

 

Dying to Remember in 2016

Posted on December 27, 2016

I remember reading the newspaper headline about River Phoenix. I never once thought, “This took too long for me to find out.” As the idols of my youth die and friends post about broken bones and their parents’ dying, I realize I am old, old enough to be able to anticipate that people I have known or loved will be dying.

George Michael, Prince, Michael Jackson, none of them perfect, but oh, the spaces they held in my life—the guy who blasted Father Figure on a first date with me, “This makes me think of the girl who is pregnant with my kid” or Michael Jackson for just being so different and not making me feel like a misfit for not looking like a girl from a music video. I forget just how much they mean until I find how quickly their music transports me from now to that time or how a shared fondness of them can make me feel a kinship with a perfect stranger.

I was in the grocery store in a tiny Vermont town away from work, just trying to check what time it was this afternoon when an alert from the Huffington Post flashed across my screen confirming the death of Carrie Fisher. I’d kind of known, but hoped against hope I was wrong. These last few days have taken me back to the virtual vigil I kept for Natasha Richardson or the way I could not wrap my mind around Phillip Seymour Hoffman being gone. I literally spent days reliving the discovery that he was gone, never to grace the screen again with his scruffy and relentlessly compelling ways.

 

The non-celebrities, the son of my childhood friend, the men from my hometown who commit suicide, the classmate changing a stranger’s tire on New Year’s Eve struck by a car. Each time I reeled, promising to remember and to be more aware of how not a single moment is promised. I watched the world go on and felt indignation that things didn’t slow down or that the crap in the world didn’t miraculously resolve itself.

I scanned social media feeds and saw people leaping to judgement, someone wasn’t a real fan for not appreciating the non-top 40 hits or someone didn’t deserve to mourn because they never knew the person.

I readily admit that I am still figuring stuff out, but something has become clearer and clearer for me—

 

We get to feel.

 

I can judge someone for being vocal or ‘going on and on,’ but what a colossal waste of time. If there is something I think the world can handle in any volume it’s the reverence of a life no longer. Mourn, remember, wonder aloud, feel all the feels for as long as you need. If someone else’s emotions get you feeling something, look at yourself. I’ve done it. Why do I care how someone else processes? Why am I feeling this way? I’ve done it over writing contests, parties I wasn’t invited to, and people who’ve knowingly betrayed me. Them’s the breaks. I can dwell and rant, but as the saying goes, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” If anything, grief humanizes us.

This afternoon I took a walk with the girls and surveyed the lake. It’s amazing to watch the transformation from swimmable body of water, to icy plane. It’s not yet there, the lake is still fighting itself, freezing over and fighting the current from the channel, wide expanses of ice collide with gnarly chunks of ice and open water. It reminds me of the cycle I go through each year, putting the 12 months to bed and looking toward the next 12. It always strikes me as odd that we wait to make resolutions, but I’m guilty of it myself. The water made me think about death and renewal, the necessary turning over and redefining—water to ice, inviting to imposing, fluid to solid.

As I looked out at the water and ice, sections of slush and areas of ice covered by last night’s rain, I realized that it’s natural, even the fight. I may struggle to articulate why George Michael meant so much to me and why I wanted Carrie Fisher to rally, and I may bristle at the people saying there are more important things to mourn, but in the end it’s ok.

There isn’t anything anyone could say to change how clearly certain songs play in my memory or to alter how significant a role someone I never met played in what I believed I could do. We get to live how we want and we get to handle our feelings when someone dies in the way that makes sense to us.

Upon learning of his terminal cancer diagnosis, Oliver Sacks wrote,

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

 

I echo the sentiments of many who have said that 2016 has taken everything but the trash. There have been three more deaths today that I’ve read about, and I have no doubt that 2017 will bring more incomprehensible, senseless, early, and devastating deaths. My hope is that I can muster the wherewithal to recognize the people I love, though we may be out of touch, and honor what and who has mattered in my life. I also hope that I can demonstrate the capacity to afford other people the time and space they need to grieve, whether it’s a person or a personal milestone they hoped to achieve.

Dying is a part of living, may we be humane in how we witness how others manage it.

 

 

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